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A Monument to Decades of Stuffed Shirts

October 15, 1987|KENNETH J. GARCIA | Times Staff Writer

It was only a matter of time before someone decided to honor the significant contributions of a few carefully chosen cups and straps, a bit of elastic and a splash of leather or lace to the world at large.

Whether the brassiere actually deserves an elaborate exhibit or just a passing mention in fashion history is a matter of some debate, but there's little doubt that it has stood out as a symbol of sex and sexism over the decades, revered by some and burned by others.

This week, against a background of gaudy splendor, lingerie giant Frederick's of Hollywood unclasped the world's first known bra museum, saluting the modern history of the fashion item that has survived the "peek-a-boo" and "plunge" periods and about 600 years of alterations.

"It's been a closet item for a long time, but it isn't any longer," said Ruth Frolove, bra buyer for Frederick's since 1965 and unofficial curator of the bra museum. "Bras are a big deal for us and a lot of other people."

From 'Snow Cone' to 'Daring Deceiver'

The museum, containing a series of displays featuring bras and accompanying advertising copy of the day, covers the period from 1946 to 1987, encompassing styles from the "snow cone" to the "daring deceiver."

Frolove said the idea for the museum came up last year when Frederick's celebrated its 40th anniversary. Displays then were such a hit that store officials decided to expand them into full museum, including celebrity bras stretching from Motown's Mary Wilson to Madonna.

"Bras have become such a fashion item that some entertainers perform in them," Frolove said, pointing to a black "teddy top" with tassels worn by Madonna. "A bra not only looks good but it does something great for women. It makes ladies look like they should."

If anything, the exhibit shows how times have changed in the bra world, noting a shift in emphasis from the "deep, deep cleavage" style of 1948 to the more refined "natural" look of today.

About 1951, women were offered a choice of "missiles," "pointettes" and "depth charges," reflecting a militaristic attitude and presumably the subject of discussion among servicemen.

Frolove said that despite the bulky dimensions of those long-forgotten bras, those styles will return soon. For in the world of bras, "What goes around, comes around," she said.

'Push-Up' and 'Peek-a-Boo'

The early 1950s also offered women the first "push-up" bras--designed to do the obvious--which are still in vogue today.

In 1958, the "peek-a-boo" bra was unveiled, and the Frederick's catalogue told potential patrons "how he'll long to set you free." With it's four double criss-crossing straps, it looked like it could hold its wearer prisoner.

"Comfort is the word of the day, but that wasn't always the case," Frolove said.

In true Hollywood fashion, the museum opening was tied to a salute to the television show "Married . . . With Children," bringing with it the usual mixture of celebrities and paparazzi .

One of the television show's stars, Katey Sagal, assisted Frolove in opening the exhibit and unlocking the "keyhole secrets" that one of the display items promised to bare.

From Chevy to Cadillac

Although the museum offers few historical references and completely ignores the first 550 years of the French-made brassiere, it does let viewers at the Hollywood Boulevard store see how contemporary styles and trends influenced modern-day lingerie.

In 1962, when the Cadillac automobile boasted huge tail fins, the "bra extraordinaire" emerged, offering women a chance "for a curvier you," and featuring some notable cars of the day. The reason for the nod to the auto, according to the display, is that one buyer "came in looking like a Chevy and left looking like a Cadillac."

"We want everyone to see how other fashions changed along with the bra," said Frolove. "You can look at what's happening at a certain time and see it reflected in the bras. The idea of the push-up was that movie stars at that time had big busts, and if a movie star had that look, why couldn't every woman?"

Twelve years ago, the "daring deceiver" was unleashed, offering a boost to women "with the soft, minus cup." At the same time, Frolove noted, a lot of women were opting for no support at all, having abandoned their bras in the name of feminism and occasionally torching them en masse.

Not surprisingly, that era is overlooked in the museum, which focuses instead on some leather and lace fashions then popular.

Frolove said the museum will travel to various Frederick's outlets around the country during the next few years and will continue to grow and change with the shifts in bra fashion.

"Bras can contribute to special moments in people's lives," Frolove said. "We wanted to share that three-letter word with the world."

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